It’s never clear why you suddenly want to do things you’ve never done before, but this year, at my ripe age, I got interested in The Karate Kid. I’d never seen the films. To my mind they merged with Rocky: wristbands and training montages; Reaganite cities and adult-orientated rock – or were simple parables of American supremacy, watched for a mood, rather than any activity of the brain. What a treat I was in for, then, when I saw, for the first time, Daniel LaRusso and Mr Miyagi in their martial arts dyad.
Actually, it was the boy who got me. When that unbroken voice, constantly pushing for a register a little lower than is comfortable, is first heard as his mother’s Chevy pulls up in Fresno, California, I got a flash of a childhood crush I’d never got to have the first time round. Ralph Macchio was one of the biggest pin-ups of the early 1980s – but what a strange pin-up he was. When he played the Kid, with his boy-voice and loping comportment, he was actually 22 years old.
There were playground rumours – all over the internet, now – that he had some kind of “condition”. There’s an early audition tape where an off-screen older woman expresses disbelief when he says he’s 18, and his eyes drop in dismay. How do you manage with girls, she asks? “Ah, I do OK with girls!” he offers, cheering himself up.
The big thing to know about The Karate Kid is there’s not much karate in it. There’s even less karate in Karate Kid II, which grossed even more at the box office, and in which Daniel follows his sensei to Japan. As they pass the Second World War air raid shelters of Osaka the boy, holding his history book and bent on exposition, says, “20,000 Americans died in two days?” “And 150,000 Japanese,” replies Miyagi. The point being, fighting is stupid. Which is also the point of the film. I think Daniel fights once in the second movie. The first is spent learning that while he must know all his cranes and chops, the hope is he won’t have to use them.
[See also: Peter Bogdanovich: Hollywood’s favourite flop]
But you know this because you’ve seen it before. My expectations were shaped by many a teen-film cliché: that the boy, an only child moving against his will across the country, would basically be a bit of an asshole, and his application to karate would teach him not to be an asshole any more. In fact, while given to rages about perfectly legitimate things – like being repeatedly punched in the stomach by other boys – Daniel is basically a lovely little man and helps his mother all the time around the house. (In the second film it is revealed that he is her dancing partner.) I also assumed that in the course of the film, he’d learn to make friends his own age and naturally leave his old, strange mentor behind. Wrong. Daniel makes no friends – though, being mature, he gets a serious girlfriend and drives around in a yellow 1947 Ford Convertible.
In Karate Kid II, all sociability is thrown to the wind as he begs to spend his summer with his ancient partner. The father-son thing is never explicitly stated, which it would be now. The weirdness of the friendship is never remarked upon, which it also would be now. There is no character conversion, because the boy was good to begin with – he quickly grasps the notions of peace and poise inherent in his sport. And there is no fallout with his single mother – he’s always running home, apologising for being late.
What a quiet, subtle film it is. In our superhero-saturated market it would be an indie movie today, like Boyhood or Call Me by Your Name. The strangeness of Macchio in reality – an adult in a boy’s body – results in the Kid’s unusual, easy maturity. No one else could have played him.
He made many more Karate Kid films, with diminishing returns, which I won’t be watching. And he appeared in a forgotten movie called Crossroads, where he played a classical guitar student seeking the soul of Robert Johnson. He learned, and mimed, every note – including a shred-off with Steve Vai. Eventually, his voice did break (the internet says he was 28). He appeared on Dancing with the Stars, and lives in California with his wife, whom he met at 15, when he would have looked 12. He still has the Ford Convertible.
This article appears in the 15 May 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Return of the Irish question